The Life of a Ballot: The Process Is Secure in Clark County
During each election, Clark County voters receive their ballots in the mail, complete them, and return them to the County Elections Office. Although most of us believe that the process of verifying and counting these ballots is secure and private, do we really know what happens to the ballots once they leave us?
Two years after Donald Trump supporters made baseless claims, voter fraud remains the focal point for several candidates, including Clark County auditor candidate Brett Simpson. Simpson has twice sued Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey alleging voter fraud. Both lawsuits were dismissed earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Kimsey offers to talk to any voter about election security. This week, The Columbian accepted that offer.
The process begins with voter registration. Like all Washington residents, citizens of Clark County can register to vote three ways: online, by mail, or in person.
“The majority of our voters register online either through the Department of Licensing or another government agency or simply directly at VoteWa.gov,” Kimsey said in an interview Thursday.
To be able to vote, you must be a US citizen. a legal resident of the state, county, and district for the 30 days immediately preceding the election in which you wish to vote; and be at least 18 years old on polling day. (Civic-minded teens can register as a “future voter” at age 16.)
“When a person submits a voter registration form, the VoteWa.gov system compares the information they submitted with the Department of Health’s death records and the Social Security Master Index List. Administration,” Kimsey said.
The process also verifies that the voter’s name and date of birth match the information on state-issued identification, such as a driver’s license. The County Elections Office then goes further.
“We also confirm that this is a legitimate address in the county,” Kimsey added.
Not everyone has the right to vote. For example, persons incarcerated by the Department of Corrections for a felony conviction or incarcerated for a federal or out-of-state felony conviction are not eligible to register.
What’s on the ballot?
Once candidates have filed their candidacies and local jurisdictions have provided the ballot metrics to be included, the election must be scheduled in a computer.
Prior to each election, the Elections Office conducts a logic and accuracy test designed to ensure that computers and tabulation software produce accurate results.
“We’re creating this big matrix that contains all the ballot formats and all the different candidates and issues,” Kimsey said.
A ballot style or format includes the races and ballot measures that apply to a specific set of electoral districts. For example, in the February 8 special election, the ballot format for voters in Ward 631 included measures for Evergreen School District and the City of Vancouver, while the ballot format for voters in Ward 634 included only the Evergreen School District measure.
Staff will cast test votes using each ballot format and scan the ballots into the tabulation system. The results are then compared to the matrix results.
“This way, we’re confirming that the voting system is correctly counting votes in each of these ballot formats and each of these races,” Kimsey said.
“It shows that the ballots are also programmed correctly and the system is counting correctly. We do it for every style of ballot, every riding, every contest, every candidate,” added Elections Supervisor Cathie Garber.
Although not required by law, Garber said the elections office is taking it a step further by adding precinct committee officer races to the test. When state offices are on the ballot, as they will be next month, Kimsey said the secretary of state’s office will observe the tests. The tests are also open to the public. The date and time of the test are announced in advance.
Once the test is complete, the room containing the hardware and tabbing software is locked and secured with a security tag, which is verified when the room is unlocked on election night.
Ballots for the Nov. 8 general election will start showing up in local mailboxes this weekend, but those living overseas or serving in the military likely already have theirs in hand. Kimsey said ballots are mailed to military personnel and foreign voters 45 days before the election. Remaining ballots are mailed 18 days before the election.
Depending on where the person is overseas and the postal service available in that country, some ballots come back quickly. Others can take weeks to arrive, Garber said. By Thursday, the county had already received a few returned ballots.
Once the ballots arrive at the election office, voter signatures must be verified.
“Every ballot envelope returned to us is reviewed by individuals who have been trained by the Washington State Patrol Fraud Division in signature verification,” Kimsey said. “They look at the signature on each ballot envelope … and compare it to the signature on the voter registration record.”
Garber said staff will use multiple points of comparison to verify a signature.
If the signature verification inspector confirms that there is a good match, the ballot envelope is presented for processing. If the signatures do not match or the signature has been left out, the ballot envelope is challenged and the voter is contacted and given information on how to correct or “cure” the signature.
Repairing a ballot envelope with a missing or mismatched signature can be done in person at the elections office or by signing a copy of the statement of vote and returning it to the auditor’s office.
“This ballot will remain inside the security envelope until this signature issue is resolved,” Garber added.
Once the signatures have been verified and the ballot envelopes sorted by constituency, the ballots are brought to the inspection commission.
The inspection process begins as soon as the ballots are returned, even before Election Day.
“Starting next week, this room will be full with about 50 or 60 people, maybe more,” Kimsey said.
He said the ballots are sorted into two groups. The first group includes ballots where scanners and software can correctly interpret voter intent. The second group includes ballots that require a decision, meaning someone must look at the ballot to determine the voter’s intent.
Before staff inspect ballots, Garber said they take an extra step to ensure voter secrecy.
“When they have a pile of secret envelopes with ballots, they exchange them with their partner on the other side of the table for the small chance that when they open this envelope, they may have seen the name of their neighbor… it’s opened by another person so it’s absolutely anonymous,” Garber said.
While the affidavit envelope contains the voter’s name and address, the secret pocket and ballot do not contain any identifying information. Kimsey said all of this means that while the elections office can tell if someone voted, there’s no way to record or track how they voted.
Garber also noted that independent observers from the Democratic and Republican parties and specific organizations are monitoring the entire process.
“They’ll be standing at the end of every table, there’s a place for them to watch the refereeing, they watch the verification of signatures, they can watch any voting process,” Garber said.
Kimsey said observers are very important to the electoral process and help ensure transparency. He said that while observers are allowed to watch any part of the ballot counting process, they must follow security rules. For example, at least two people at a time must enter all rooms that house computer equipment or ballots. “Even though they entered, it’s a heavily guarded and guarded area,” Garber added.
Count the results
Once the ballots have been digitized, the data is saved on secure memory cards, called V-drives, which are locked in a safe.
“On election night…these V drives are inserted into the tab computer. Push a button and we get the preliminary election results,” Kimsey said.
Although the computer can compile the results quickly, Kimsey said it can take days after an election before the results are known. This is because a large number of ballots arrive late and take time to be inspected and verified. Updated results are posted daily, as long as there are 500 or more ballots to process.
“We get a lot of ballots on Election Day and the day after Election Day. All of those ballots have to go through the signature verification process and that takes time,” he said.
Ballots must be postmarked or deposited in ballot boxes by Election Day, which is November 8 this year, but may be received and counted by the Elections Office up until the day before Election Day. certification on November 29 of this year.
As for fears that hackers could alter the voting results, Kimsey said that couldn’t happen because there was no way to access the computer from outside the building.
“It doesn’t have wireless communication capability,” Kimsey said. “Not only is he not connected to the internet, but he is not connected to any server outside of this room.”
“There’s no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth, no internet,” Garber added.
Kimsey said a virus or other malware could not be loaded onto the computer either. There are blockers that prevent access to computer ports and do not allow executable files. This means that other software programs, such as a virus, spyware, or malware, cannot be installed.
For more information about the Clark County Office of Elections, go to https://clark.wa.gov/elections.